Guns drawn, Kansas City, Kan. police officers burst into an Indian casino
last March and ordered tribal police to disarm before seizing $1 million in
cash and gaming equipment.
Outrageous? Of course, because the casino - owned by the Wyandotte Nation -
sits on tribal land that a federal court acknowledged as sovereign
territory eight years ago. And backing up those rulings is the Indian
Gaming Regulatory Act, which makes it abundantly clear that states have no
authority on sovereign Indian territory when it comes to matters involving
gaming. This seems to mean zip to the state authorities.
I'd be naive to say what happened in Kansas City is shocking, because it
has sadly become so commonplace. So far the tribes, like the Wyandotte,
have shown enormous restraint and have not reacted with the same violence
the states employ. We apparently put more faith in this country's judicial
system than the states, however badly that system has treated us of late.
Throughout the country, state and local authorities are taking a cue from
recent Supreme Court decisions as license to trample on tribal sovereignty.
In a 2001 decision involving Nevada game wardens serving a search warrant
on tribal land, Justice Anthony Scalia declared open season on sovereignty
by siding with the state. Local jurisdictions have since responded with
gusto, staging shows of force that are as melodramatic as they are
unnecessary - and illegal.
The High Court also ruled in favor of non-Indian authorities in Inyo
County, Calif., where sheriff's deputies essentially burglarized tribal
offices belonging to the Paiute-Shoshone Indians of the Bishop Community.
Deputies confiscated records connected to a child support case, but could
just as easily have employed civil remedies through local courts.
Nevertheless, the case became one more example of local police shoving
around a tribe just because they could.
A particularly outrageous example of this trend had Rhode Island
authorities last summer storming a tobacco shop and physically assaulting
tribal members on the Narragansett Reservation. The issue was tax revenue
from cigarettes. Meanwhile, corporations in the same state accused of
hiding billions in taxable revenue were allowed the privilege of a court
hearing to explain their case. The Narragansett got police officers kicking
in a door.
As wrong as their justification and as crude as their methods, at least the
Rhode Island cops could cite taxes as a reason.
The Wyandotte were apparently targeted for no better reason than a grudge,
harbored by Kansas state attorneys still bitter over losing a nearly decade
old court battle fought to keep the tribe from entering the gaming
industry. The real reason for the raid was retaliation, a show of brute
force meant to put the Wyandotte in their place. This is the kind of
attitude the High Court is nurturing. The implication is clear: many in
government - local, state, and federal - will take any opportunity to erode
tribal sovereignty. They see it as merely another pretty word; in other
words, another empty promise.
For Native Americans, sovereignty is a lifeline, and every intrusion that
erodes the tribal right to exist into perpetuity under its own rule is a
step backward, a step back toward welfare, dependence, poverty and
hopelessness and our disappearance as Indian nations.
Sovereignty for American Indian tribes is producing jobs, economic
independence and freedom from generations of poverty. But as if on cue,
state authorities throughout the nation are now seeking - sometimes
violently - to strip tribes of their status as sovereign nations and return
to what many members of state governments obviously regard, with nostalgia,
as "the good old days," when tribes were subject to termination and
extermination. They seek to rob tribes of the economic benefits of their
sovereign status by coercion and intimidation.
There is no going back, though. Sovereignty means that Indian tribes are
separate nations to be treated as governments by other governments.
The Wyandotte are not backing down. They are fighting to preserve their
rights in court, utilizing a legal system designed to settle conflicts
through logic, reason and the rule of law. As other governments ratchet up
attacks on tribal sovereignty, it is up to the tribes to make certain they
are doing everything they can to protect it, in every way possible. For
centuries, the tribes have had the right to control their own destiny, and
now is the time to be particularly diligent about the protection of the
greatest asset American Indian tribes enjoy, their sovereignty.
Responsible, responsive sovereignty can benefit all, the tribes, the states
and the federal government. It is up to us to show this, prove it, and win
when confronted by these ugly attempts to erode our basic rights, and
maintain tribal sovereignty, and give it the respect it deserves.
We need to remind America that the promises in the Constitution apply to
all Americans, including Native Americans. As Felix Cohen said, "Like the
miner's canary, the Indian marks the shift from fresh air to poison in our
political atmosphere, and the treatment of Indians reflects the rise and
fall in our democratic faith..."